By Esther Musembi
In a ground-breaking move, Nigeria has publicly destroyed tons of seized wildlife products, including pangolin scales and leopard, python and crocodile skins. The public display echoes similar events in Kenya and elsewhere on the continent and marks Nigeria’s renewed commitment to combatting wildlife trafficking and safeguarding the nation’s biodiversity.
The event was the first of its kind in Nigeria and was intended to send a strong message to traffickers and consumers of the illegal trade and also to safeguard the nation’s biodiversity, according to conservation officials.
“By destroying these pangolin scales and skins, we’re crushing the illegal trade that preys on our wildlife. Our commitment is unwavering, and we will not compromise on the protection of our endangered species,” said Kolawole Gbenga, head of conservation monitoring at the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency or NESREA.
The incineration ceremony took place in Abuja on October 17, according to local media, and pictures were also posted on the NESREA Facebook site. The event was presided over by representatives from various government agencies, local and international environmental NGOs, and wildlife conservation experts.
NESREA said it had collaborated with the Elephant Protection Initiative or EPI Foundation, with support from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime or UNODC. Together, they burned nearly 4 tons of seized pangolin scales and 110 kilograms of dried skins from a variety of protected species.
Gbenga also said that as Nigeria is a signatory to the CITES Convention, the international community would see that Nigeria is serious about combatting the illegal wildlife trade, improving the battered image of Nigeria, which has become a transit point for illicit trade in animal products.
According to CITES, pangolins are among the world’s endangered ‘Big Five’ together with elephants, rhinos, sharks and tigers.
The pangolin is the world’s most trafficked mammal and is hunted primarily for its scales, which are in high demand in traditional Asian medicine. The meat is also a delicacy in some Asian cultures and is also consumed as ‘bush meat’ in some parts of Africa. In some areas, the pangolin is also killed for superstitious reasons as its sighting is believed to signify the onset of drought, further driving the mammal into extinction.
Each of the eight pangolin species, including four from Asia and four from Africa, holds a place in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), ensuring that they receive the highest level of legal protection. With the severe depletion of the four Asian pangolin species, the demand in Asian markets is now being met by a growing supply of trafficked African pangolins and their parts.
While existing CITES rules impose restrictions on the trade of Asian species, they do permit regulated trade in the four African species. However, illegal trade is threatening this species dangerously close to extinction, with two of the four African pangolin species listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
In recent years, Nigeria has become a busy transit hub for pangolin-scale trafficking from the four remaining African species. According to recent research by the University of Cambridge, pangolin scales intercepted by Nigerian officials between 2010 and 2021 amounted to a staggering 190,407 kilograms. This translates to around 800,000 dead pangolins.
Ivory tusks have also been found among the impounded scales, which signals trafficking is far more complex and well-organized than previously thought.
According to Gbenga, Nigerian authorities recognize the urgency of protecting this species and have taken significant steps to address the trafficking of pangolins through its borders.
“We have adopted the first National Strategy to Combat Wildlife and Forest Crime. Subsequently, the government has also established the Wildlife Law Enforcement Task Force (WLETF) of which NESREA is the operational lead to work closely with other key stakeholders and the Federal Ministry of Environment addressing wildlife crime in the country,” he explained.
He added that the Nigerian Government also through NESREA uses the Endangered Species (Control of International Trade and Traffic) Act and the National Environmental (Protection of Endangered Species in Domestic and International Trade) Regulations 2023 to enforce wildlife crime.
Nigeria joins other African countries, notably Kenya, which held its first public burning of ivory tusks in 1989. That event, the first of its kind, was presided over by then-president, Daniel Arap Moi. In 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta presided over a similar burning of ivory tusks at Nairobi National Park, in a move designed to send a message to poachers and consumers alike.
Nathan Gichohi, a Senior Ecologist at the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and based at the Tsavo Mokomazi Landscape, supported and endorsed Nigeria’s move.
“It’s a very good thing to destroy the pangolin scales. Because for one, if they are not destroyed, they will end up in the illegal market. This is what usually happens with most of the trafficked wildlife trophies. If they are not destroyed, of course, high chances are they will end up in the illegal market.”
The AWF has also partnered with UNODC to curb illegal wildlife trade in the international arena.
“It’s a question of working with the consumer countries, together with international instruments like CITES, and those other multilateral agreements so that the consumer market is closed,” he concluded.
Other African countries that have burned items seized from illegal wildlife traders include Gabon, Tanzania and South Africa.
This is a significant step for these countries as illegal wildlife trade has often been linked to illicit financial flows. From bribes to money laundering, the list is endless.
According to the 2020 UNODC report, it’s estimated that between 2016 and 2018, the illegal income generated from trafficking ivory was around US$400 million, and for rhino horn, it was about US$230 million. The bulk of this money is made at the retail level, where the products are processed and sold to the final buyers. In reality, the actual illegal financial flows, which involve moving money across borders, could be far higher and as an unknown percentage funds criminal and terror networks inside host countries, Nigeria and other African countries are now looking to crack down harder.
bird story agency